Boris Johnson as UK foreign secretary is a perpetual reminder of the weakness of Theresa May, the prime minister held in power by a peculiar mix of mainly negative forces. Johnson, a standard bearer for Conservatives backing no-holds-barred exit from the European Union, has been viewed for two years as a disagreeable but necessary adherent to the British cabinet. Disagreeable, because the former mayor of London’s behaviour has done little to advance British diplomacy, and much to undermine it. Necessary, because his removal, according to the standard viewpoint, would be so unpopular among hard-line Brexiteers that it could precipitate May’s overthrow.
Two years after the referendum vote to leave the EU, Johnson is vulnerable. The point of keeping a maverick in a post where he can seriously impair Britain’s interests is becoming ever less clear. Depending on the outcome of Friday’s cabinet meeting on Brexit at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, May could soon be able to dispense of Johnson’s services, strengthening her own and Britain’s status.
Admirers and adversaries regard Johnson as an example of British exceptionalism: a plain-speaking figure dispensing light-heartedness in classical Greek, whose support for a ‘full British Brexit’ aligns him equally with leafy Conservative shires and Labour’s post-industrial northern townscapes. Yet Johnson’s faith in his rhetorical powers and bridge-building ability appears adrift from reality.
Viewed through a precision lens, Johnson’s crafted soundbites are revealed as schoolboy slapstick: at best meaningless, at worst, disruptive, divisive and dangerous.
He rails against May’s target of a UK ‘customs partnership’ with the EU, denouncing ‘hopeless compromise, some perpetual pushme-pullyou arrangement in which we stay half-in and half-out in a political no man’s land’. The man in nominal charge of British ambassadors does not understand that fighting to achieve workable compromise is a fundamental part of diplomatic practice. Even the most soft-spoken and modestly demeanoured foreign visitors to Johnson’s ministry tell senior civil servants that no one takes him seriously.
Behind all the analysis of Johnson’s style lies the same simple equation that I formulated three years ago to explain Greece’s continued adherence to economic and monetary union. The former mayor of London will remain in the cabinet for as long as Johnson’s nuisance value is held to be lower within the government than it would be outside it. Over the past two years, JNV-I has been less than JNV-O. As Johnson’s credibility wanes, the equation is turning against him.
With scarcely believable clumsiness, Johnson has given May the chance to sack him without promoting him to martyrdom among Conservative diehards. In three important areas, he has offended against party shibboleths.
In his elaborate manoeuvring to avoid turning up in parliament last week for a vote that would have demonstrated his U-turn over the Heathrow airport expansion plan, Johnson stands accused of cowardice.
By stridently criticising May’s proposals (which he had earlier endorsed) on the customs union and single market, formulated partly for the closing phase of EU negotiations to protect the ‘soft’ border between the Irish republic and Northern Ireland, Johnson has damaged his country.
And by declaiming ‘fuck business’ at a diplomatic gathering in London last month, Johnson has turned against the Conservatives’ prosperity-creating credo. He has also made a mockery of his own previous messages (rightly yet now insecurely propounded everywhere in brave British embassy placards) upholding Britain as a ‘world leader’ in financial and business services and technology with a ‘dizzyingly fertile’ manufacturing sector.
When Johnson announced in February 2016 that he would advocate Leave in the referendum campaign, I thought, wrongly, he would strengthen the ability of David Cameron, then prime minister, to stay in. Perhaps we are now seeing a delayed reaction to Johnson’s opportunism.
In his latest gaffes, Johnson appears to be mimicking the missteps of his fellow Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg. The Conservative backbencher has committed the historical folly of comparing May with Robert Peel, the 19th century Conservative prime minister, who famously split his party in the 1840s by repealing the Corn Laws.
Both men must have read the biography of Peel by Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, whom Conservatives (and many others) should revere. Hurd writes that Peel’s seminal House of Commons anti-Corn Law speech on 16 February 1846 ‘must rate as one of the founding documents of globalisation and free trade’ – just the characteristics that Conservative ‘globalisers’ say they espouse.
‘This night you will select the motto which is to indicate the commercial policy of England,’ Peel told members of parliament. ‘Choose your motto, “Advance” or “Recede”. Many countries are watching the selection you may make.’ More than 170 years later, the same holds true for May.
David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF.